‘Thought I’d find you here.’
Drake looked up from the flight controls of the King Arthur to see Cortez hauling herself into the cockpit. He frowned. ‘I’m just double-checking the flight systems with the combat pod installed.’
‘Sure, that’s a task you have to do, and can’t leave to Harkon.’ She slipped into the operations seat behind him, fingers inputting commands.
‘Hey, what’re you doing? Isn’t this Koya’s job?’
‘Oh, she’s doing a weapons check. I’m making sure engine power can still be raised to the same levels if you need a boost.’ She looked up and gave a lopsided, self-effacing smirk. ‘Also, yes, I’m wildly over-qualified but I gotta check for myself this runabout’s in the best possible condition before it flies my girlfriend into a death-trap. What’s your excuse?’
Drake looked back at his controls. ‘Do I need an excuse except not wanting our friends to get blown up?’
There was a bleep as Cortez locked her console and slid over to the co-pilot’s seat. ‘I know what’s going on. Been going through it myself.’ He tensed, fishing for an effective lie, but then she continued. ‘You really should trust your people can do their jobs. That things won’t go wrong just because you turn your back on them five seconds.’
‘What do you mean, you’ve been going through it?’ he asked guardedly.
Cortez sighed. ‘I led the damage control teams when we were hit. I said it was because I had to, but the truth is I’ve got a perfectly good kid in my engineering team who can do the job, he just needed a little trust. Then I ran myself into the ground overseeing the repairs, again telling myself it’s because it was a catastrophe. But again, I’ve got a good team, people I could and should have delegated to. I got it into my head that I had to do everything myself, and it was making me a crappy leader, not to mention giving me ulcers.’ She punched him lightly on the arm. ‘Harkon’s a good pilot. They’ll do a good job. You’re gonna have to let go.’
He should have left it there. But instead he twisted in his chair, squinted at her, and said, ‘So, you’re here being a massive hypocrite?’
‘Hey, while I’m down here, Adupon’s prepping the team for combat footing. That’s a big trust I’m putting in him. Besides, if I do this, then I’ll have an easier time focusing on my job instead of worrying about Karana when the shooting starts. What’s your -’ But Cortez stopped, and her eyes narrowed. ‘Oh, no.’
‘What? No -’
‘No, come on, Connor.’
He lifted jerked his hands up. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘If you tell me you’ve got a little crush on Thawn…’ She pointed an accusing finger.
‘I’m not telling you that!’
‘But you do, don’t you.’
‘No, because that’d be really inconvenient.’ Drake stood up and backed away from the chair.
‘It would, because her great hunk of a fiancé has just shown up -’
‘It’s an arranged engagement,’ he sneered before he could stop himself. ‘It’s not like she’s mad for him, and he’s not that hunky -’
‘Oh, come on, I’m gay as the day is long and that is an attractive man.’ Cortez rolled her eyes. ‘Have you just been pulling her pigtails the last few months?’
‘It’s not like that!’ he insisted, though the words sounded a bit empty even to himself. But before he could assemble a half-decent defence, he spotted movement in the shuttlebay through the canopy, and swore. ‘Here they come – you say a goddamn word -’
‘Like what?’ Cortez looked offended. ‘“Good luck on your super dangerous mission, Thawn, oh, by the way, Connor here thinks you’re hot? Please don’t let your fiancé turn him into a smear.”’
‘I mean, sure, don’t say that.’
Her shoulders sagged, and she gave him another gentle arm-punch. ‘Whatever it is, you gotta pull it together, okay? You have been wound up so tight, and it’s not just messing with your work, it’s not a good look on you. Figure out your stuff, and put it to bed.’ She winced. ‘And so long as Lieutenant Hunk is here to stay, it’s not the fun kind of bed.’
‘I know,’ he sighed. ‘It’s not a big deal. It wasn’t even a full-on feeling, you know? Just a…’
‘A little thing that maybe, with sunlight and water, could have been a real thing.’ Cortez sighed as they watched the officers approach the King Arthur, then her face shifted for a mask of amusement. ‘Honestly, words of wisdom like that, I could put Greg out of a job. C’mon, game faces.’
Rhade, Thawn, and Valance had arrived ahead of the Hazard Team, and Koya was already with them by the time Cortez and Drake emerged, talking them through the alterations to the ship’s profile with the weapons pod installed. So it was Rhade, broad and resplendent in his combat gear, who noticed them first, and his smile was annoyingly pleasant.
‘I see we’re getting priority attention from the Flight and Engineering departments?’
Cortez scoffed as she sauntered over. ‘I’ve got an itsy-bitsy interest in you not getting blown up. Just for you, Lieutenant; your pretty face is a novelty and I’d hate for us to be denied it -’
‘Isa.’ Valance arched an amused eyebrow. ‘You’re nibbling boot-leather there.’
She subsided at that, but Drake was quietly relieved she’d drawn attention with her usual babble. She gave Rhade an apologetic look. ‘Uh, yeah, sorry for that bit of casual objectification. All meant with courteous professionalism.’
But Rhade looked gently amused. ‘And you’re doing delightful work, Commander Cortez.’
‘Thanks, I am delightful.’ She cleared her throat and clapped her hands together, recovering poise. ‘I’m done with the systems check. Because I’m a crazy perfectionist who had to see it for myself. Which is why I dragged Connor down here to help.’
Drake tried to hide the rush of gratitude with a long-suffering expression. ‘It’ll be fine,’ he told Valance. ‘You’ll fly fine.’
‘I appreciate you taking the time, Lieutenant,’ said Valance, in a way he thought was a little condescending after Rourke had torn strips off them.
But then Thawn piped up, ‘Yes, thank you,’ quietly, but with a sincerity which made his gut twist, and he couldn’t help but look at her after spending most of the conversation trying to ignore her existence.
‘Yeah, well.’ He rolled a shoulder. ‘You know I always gotta double-check your work calibrating the nav sensors, so I thought I’d save you the effort this time.’
Indignation reached her eyes. ‘You double-check but you don’t find anything wrong -’ But now he couldn’t help smirking, and her gaze turned even more indignant as she realised he was winding her up, and he thought his stomach was now going to turn inside-out. ‘You’re terrible.’
‘See?’ said Cortez. ‘You better come back or you miss out on all our charms.’
Drake thought everyone, especially Cortez, might explode of surprise when Valance reached for her arm in an unmistakably intimate way, and the XO’s gaze turned softer. ‘We’ll be fine.’
It was Cortez’s turn to reel. ‘You better. We spent ages fixing this thing up.’
‘You came down here twenty minutes ago,’ said Petty Officer Koya flatly. ‘I’ve been here two hours.’
‘Oh. Yeah.’ Cortez hesitated, then turned back to Valance. ‘You need to reassure Koya all intensely and nicely, too.’
Drake cleared his throat. ‘We should get back.’ He gave them all a nod of forced cheer. ‘Good luck.’
He didn’t pay close enough attention to whatever farewells were exchanged by Cortez and Valance. Had he been in a better mood, he’d have been surprised and pleased at this change in tune, this open admission of feelings even in a professional, if quiet, space. He was relieved despite himself that Rhade made sure to give him a hearty, grateful handshake, because gritting his teeth at that meant he didn’t have to look too much at Thawn before he and Cortez finished up and left.
They were out of the shuttlebay and heading down the corridor, destined to separate at the turbolifts, before she spoke. ‘Not a full-on feeling, huh?’
‘You’re right,’ he groaned. ‘It needs smothering.’
‘Great news. You’re about to get a hell of a distraction.’
Rourke tried to hide his discomfort as he gathered at the back of the bridge with Commander Airex and Lieutenant Kharth. ‘I’d rather not bring this point up,’ he said, hands on his hips. ‘But there’s a security concern I need to raise.’ He caught them exchange glances; despite their awkward relationship, they were better than he thought they’d ever admit at nonverbal communication, and he sighed. ‘Truthfully, Lieutenant, it’s one of the main reasons I wanted you on the bridge.’
Now Kharth frowned at that, wrong-footed by him bringing up the offence. ‘Sir?’
‘We know the D’Ghor are particularly fond of boarding for hand-to-hand combat. Torkath warned me that I’d be viewed as a priority target… which sounds self-evident, I know.’
‘But when it comes to the D’Ghor,’ said Airex a little acidly, ‘their personal priorities may override more sensible tactical considerations.’
‘You mean, they might go on a suicide run for the captain.’ Kharth’s gaze was flattening. ‘Not to take an enemy commander out of a fight, but so they, personally, got to kill them. It is subtly but importantly different.’ She sighed. ‘You want me here for your protection, sir? I’ve already got additional bridge security for this -’
‘Don’t get me wrong; if anyone’s going to have my back, I want it to be you,’ Rourke said roughly. He hadn’t been thinking much about his words, but the effect on Kharth was immediate, her chin tilting up an inch in surprise. ‘But I don’t want you abandoning your post to come and save me. No, with Commander Valance and Lieutenant Rhade by necessity on the away mission, I want more combat-focused redundancies in the bridge’s chain of command.’
Airex sighed. ‘I suppose under normal circumstances, both you and I being incapacitated is considerably more unlikely.’
‘And,’ said Rourke, bracing himself, ‘Lieutenant Kharth has more combat experience than you, Commander.’
He’d been expecting indignation from Airex, consistently disapproving of Endeavour’s tactical priorities. Perhaps the clear and present danger won his cause, or perhaps Airex for whatever reason wouldn’t show indignation about this to Kharth. Instead the Trill looked between them both and said, in a surprisingly neutral voice, ‘Are you saying that Lieutenant Kharth should assume command in case of your incapacitation, sir?’
Kharth looked horrified. ‘That’s -’
‘No.’ Rourke lifted a hand. ‘You’re my second officer, Commander, and you’ve given me no reason to question your capabilities. But if I’m out of action, I want Lieutenant Kharth here to advise you.’ He looked at her. ‘That’s why you’re not on the away mission, Lieutenant. No doubt Juarez can man Tactical, but when things get rough, you’re my fly-half.’
She had been starting to soften, as Rourke thought for the first time he was making her understand why he’d brought in Rhade, why he was using Dathan; that it was an expression of his immense respect for her and her skills, not a lack thereof. But his last word made her stop and squint. ‘Your what?’
‘Sporting reference,’ drawled Airex. ‘Think about when humans blather on about a “quarterback.”’
‘Hey, I play a real sport -’
But Kharth had turned away and gestured across the bridge. ‘Arys!’
Rourke frowned as she summoned his yeoman, the burly Andorian stepping away from Communications to join them. ‘Ensign, I’m not sure what the Lieutenant -’
‘Ensign, you can stop flirting with Lindgren and make yourself useful,’ Kharth said bluntly, which was enough to make the young man turn an interesting shade of purple. ‘You’re now on the bridge for this battle; get yourself geared up and ready for melee. You’re bodyguarding the captain if Klingons board.’ Rourke hadn’t brought this up with young Arys yet because it felt odd asking a junior officer whom he knew resented him to protect him. Perhaps that was why Kharth had brought up Lindgren in order to wrong-foot him, but it seemed to work.
Arys looked between them, straightened, and nodded. ‘As you say, Lieutenant. I’ll get my ushaan-tor out of storage.’
‘Good kid.’ Kharth clapped him on the shoulder as he headed off and looked up at Rourke. ‘Will that do, sir?’
‘I mean, your subtle disregard for rugby hasn’t enamoured either of you to me,’ he told both senior officers flatly.
‘Then I think we’re done,’ said Airex, and Rourke was left with distinct relief that the two couldn’t get on ninety-percent of the time. They were unbearably smug otherwise.
‘Coming up on Elgatis Belt,’ Drake reported as the three resumed their posts.
‘Still no sign of enemy ships on sensors,’ Kharth confirmed as she reached Tactical.
‘They’re out there,’ Rourke said, low voice rumbling across the bridge. ‘And if they’re not, they’ve got something worse planned.’ He looked around the officers; Drake, Lindgren, Kharth, Airex, junior officers filling spaces. More security than he’d ever put on the bridge, every person for once issued with a side-arm even here. ‘There’s every chance this will be rougher and more personal than any ship-to-ship combat you’ve seen. It’s alright to be afraid. But you’re not alone up here. Remember that I would, and have, trusted each and every one of you with my life. Keep trusting each other. We’ll get through this as a team.’ He should have prepared something better, he reflected bitterly. Starfleet was unaccustomed to combat like this, everyone here too young to remember the last war.
Everyone but him.
‘Dropping out of warp in five,’ came Drake’s clear voice.
Rourke nodded. ‘Red alert.’
The lights dimmed as the galaxy changed around them. The streaming stars stilled on the viewscreen as Endeavour stopped catapulting through the great dark to drift back to rest. A needle of bright light lancing from the distant sun of Elgatis filled the view until a shadow passed over it, showing all around them the tumbling dark of shattered remnants of planets never born. Each asteroid of the Elgatis Belt looked tiny from here, but Rourke knew some were larger than his ship, possibly larger than the Kut’luch. And there, deep in the belly of the belt, squatted the hulking shadow of Elgatis Refinery, built into the largest asteroid itself.
For a long moment, nothing moved, and nothing happened. Rourke drew a deep breath. ‘Elsa, hail the refinery.’
‘Hailing. No response.’
‘Any sign of visitors?’
‘Nothing on sensors that could be the Kut’luch,’ said Kharth.
Airex leaned forwards. ‘Uridium deposits aren’t allowing the clearest sensor reads. There are several small vessels docked at the refinery. I can’t tell which, if any, are Klingon. But I’m detecting more life-signs on the refinery than should be there. Anything from five to thirty Klingons.’
‘Let’s be realistic,’ said Kharth. ‘It’s not five.’
Rourke nodded. ‘Lieutenant Drake, clear the King Arthur to launch. Tell them to stay close, we’ll navigate the belt together. Let’s see if they show themselves.’
‘King Arthur launching… Commander Valance acknowledges and is in formation.’
‘Keep trying to get anyone on that refinery, Elsa. Helm, take us through this bramble patch. Steady as she goes.’ Rourke leaned forward, brow furrowing as they slid towards the twisting, changing paths through rock and metal. ‘Let’s not get pricked by thorns.’